Saturday, September 28, 2013

What's Palau like?

I thought I would deviate from the usual “we did this today” post (as riveting as they are) and talk a little bit about Palau, specifically for those cruisers who are deciding where to go next. 

If you’ve followed our blog, you know we never intended to end up here.  We were to leave the Marshall Islands and head back down to Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, New Cal, and then Australia like everyone else.  Given the wind patterns up here along with our very conscious decision to go the wrong way all throughout the Marshalls, I pressured our beloved Captain into heading “downwind.”  My insides couldn’t take it anymore.  He might as well have been single-handling.  It was a win-win for everyone.

And we have never looked back.  Micronesia has truly been the highlight of our adventure so far.  The people here have a unique culture and such a warm way about them.  While the area is visited by more and more cruisers every year, you can still find atolls and islands that are virtually untouched by western civilization (or not…whatever floats your boat).  And there’s no need to tell you that the diving is outstanding, particularly if you’re interested in WWII and wreck diving.  After spending a year in FSM and enjoying all it had to offer, we decided to continue west to Palau.  We couldn’t come this far and miss it.

This is what Jake and Andy have been doing while I'm gone.
…another decision we have yet to regret.  The first and most obvious benefit of Palau after traveling through Micronesia (or even PNG and the Solomons) is the wide variety of “stuff.”  You can take a break from taro and rice and actually visit a real grocery store (or 3).  Vegetarians be prepared to be delighted…not only are there actual vegetables, but due to the large population of Seventh Day Adventists here, there are all kinds of healthy meat substitutes and alternatives to the pork, pork, pork seen throughout the area.  There are hardware stores, restaurants, taxis, and diving.  The diving is phenomenal.  Which leads to the second benefit that some, but not all, may be aware of.  Sam’s Tours.  Hands down, the most hospitable place to cruisers we’ve ever been.  Sam’s is also home to the Royal Belau Yacht club, providing services such as a dedicated dinghy dock, showers, water, ice (when available), mail services, and of course, there’s always a cold Red Rooster for those who want it (the local beer).  Since being here we’ve participated in movie nights, Cinco de Mayo Cookoff, and a kayak race just for kids.  There are many other activities we either didn’t participate in or weren’t here for.  The point being, there’s always something to do.  Sam’s also offers very competitive prices for diving and any of his other tours.  You can rent a car right at the bar and Sam’s drivers even stop and pick you up for a ride every once in a while when they’re not full of tourists and space permits.

Palau itself also has lots to do.  You’ve read enough about the rock islands on this blog (and don’t forget jelly fish lake), but there’s plenty to do on the main island(s) too.  There are two museums, the National Museum and a privately owned one whose name escapes me right now (Etpison?).  The private one is actually cheaper than the National Museum and is really fantastic given its size and location.  It’s actually a museum for all of Micronesia so it’s not limited to just Palau.  The gift shop rivals most medium size museums in America and on the outside there is one of the famous Wyland murals (of which we love…Jake likes to keep track of all the one’s he’s visited – I think he’s up to 7).  Incidentally, there’s one at the airport, too.  There is a fairly decent public library and the college has a library as well.  If you have kids and plan on being here for a whole season, there are numerous sporting activities:  soccer, judo, baseball, tennis, etc.  Go to the National Gym and you’ll find a plethora of information.  There’s a dolphin awareness program that while a little costly is a very fun event for the whole family.  Jake actually got to ride a dolphin…no joke.

He caught this all by himself :)
For the culinary sorts who got hooked on mangrove crabs in Pohnpei, it is possible to get them here too.  It’s a bit harder though.  You see, there are saltwater crocs in Palau so being a mangrove crab fisherman takes on a whole new meaning here.  The prices go from $2.50/lb (Pohnpei) to $8.50/lb and you still have a very hard time finding anyone to sell them to you (most crabs are reserved for the restaurants).  But, if you really really really want some crab, you can drive up to the north western side of the island and find the crab farm (it’s on most of the maps).  They don’t have a ton of them, but they’re usually very eager to sell what they do have.  If you call first, even better.  At the very least, it’s an interesting tourist opportunity to see how they fence everything off and then watch them actually catch the crabs.

There are a few downsides and if you asked me 6 months ago, I probably would have focused more on those as they seem to have a direct affect on cruisers.  The bureaucracy is nuts and they’re constantly trying to find ways to squeeze another dime out of the few cruisers who stop here.  Sam’s and the Yacht Club work diligently on our behalf to keep these things under control.  We’ve had a few run-ins with the rangers, namely in Nikko Bay.  I don’t think it’s the entire force; just a few that we apparently rubbed the wrong way.  Unfortunately, the result is that no one can take the big boat back to Nikko anymore.  For that we apologize…although we, along with everyone else, are still not sure what we did.  It’s not a huge impact as very few cruisers ever go back there in the big boat (so few in fact that we didn’t meet any others), but frustrating none the less.  Maybe it will be like all the other rules and change very soon.  We’ve had time to get over it and let all the good things outweigh the bad.

I think Jake took this picture.
The biggest problem in Palau seems to be felt by at least ½ the fleet that comes through here.  Where do we go from here?  The possibilities are literally endless.  Philippines, Solomons, PNG, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan.  There are even a few, more adventurous folks that go back through Micronesia. But it is always a hot topic here.  We’ve considered every single one of those options and I think we’ve finally settled on the Philippines.  When I return from the states we’ll be packing up and moving on. 
I could go on for pages, but I won’t (you’re welcome).  If anyone has any specific questions about the area, please don’t hesitate to ask.  I haven’t been too diligent about my “cruising notes” on Palau because there is so much information in the guide book we use (I don’t have it in front of me, but I think it’s Cruisers Guide to Palau…google it, it’s worth it).  I’m attempting to just document the changes and /or our unique experiences and post that before we leave.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Happy Birthday, Jake!

Warning!!!  Sappy alert! I swear I’ll write about cruising stuff again some day….

I do believe someone is happy to see his daddy.
As I was standing on the beach watching a Daughtry concert a few weeks ago (really great concert, by the way), he started singing his hit song “I’m going home.”  I wondered…what does that really mean?  While I admit, it wasn’t exactly an event where I would expect to dig deep into my thoughts, but the question is one I think about all the time.  Particularly while I’m here in VA, Andy and Jake are in OK (Andy arrived yesterday), and our boat is in Palau.

My first response used to be, “Well, home is Atlanta of course!”  because that’s where I grew up, where I went to school, and where my brother and his family still live.  Once I got married and had a kid, of course home was always with them, but I still felt a sense of going “home” whenever I would go to see my parents, even though they were in California.  Moms always make you feel like you’re home no matter where you are, right?  Once we moved onto the boat, going “home” meant back to the US.  But then when we got back here, a whole different question of home presents itself.  Last year, I realized another place I call “home” is VA.  This is where I met Andy, got married, bought our first house together, and had our son.  It’s where the majority of my friends are and where I still run into people in the grocery store that I haven’t seen in years.  I like to call it my “adult home.”

But now that Andy has landed in OK and he and Jake are back together, I feel really far from home.  Today is Jake’s birthday and that makes it even harder. 

I think it's been almost 10 years
since they've all been together.

Jake and Natalie...a cousin he's meeting for the first time.

Jake and Jet...Aunt Shannon's "baby"

Part of my little "family" here in Virginia.
I think anyone who travels or has moved around a lot probably goes through a point where they don’t quite know where home is.  And in the end, I think it always comes down to family.  It can be your immediate family, or it can be your extended family, or it can be the friends that feel like family.  But all in all, it’s where you feel loved.  Given that definition, I’m going to put my big girl pants on today and quit feeling sorry for myself (and guilty) for missing Jake’s birthday.  Because while I am far away from both my immediate family and my extended family, I am constantly surrounded by friends here that feel like family and make me feel very loved.  And I know without a doubt that Jake is feeling love today too, surrounded by ALL of his [McKaskle] aunts and uncles (even Uncle Matt made it for the celebration all the way from TN), almost all of his cousins, his grandmother, grandfather, great grandfather and most importantly of all, his Daddy.   He has grown up so much since we left California 3 ½ years ago.  He’s a confident, happy, smart little boy with an amazing imagination and a quirky little personality.  This summer he has grown even more (literally, about an inch, I think).  He’s grown more independent not only in what he does but in his thinking and decision making as well.  He’s made some very good decisions on his own regarding relationships, learning and even deciding what should be deleted on the iPad (“It was just the right thing to do, mommy” – insert mother’s shock here).  I couldn’t be a prouder mom.  It’s a day for celebration.  Happy Birthday, Sweetie!